On Thursday, a film screening of "#ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator" introduced students to a hidden side of the Syrian revolution beyond the spinning center of ISIS-driven media blitzes. The 2013 film follows the story of then-19-year-old Ala’a Basatneh, a Syrian-American college student, and explores the power of social media to drive social change in states of oppression.
The production leads with shaky footage of wreckage, as a man darts through a crumbled Syrian cityscape. Seconds later, the camera cuts to the tranquility of a well-manicured, red-brick suburb of Chicago, where Basatneh, a freshman at Wright College, sits in her bedroom. She reminisces briefly on going to the mall with her friends, like any typical teenager, before declaring, “Nowadays, I don’t have time. From my laptop, I’m running a revolution in Syria.”
With 1200 Facebook friends, 2000 Twitter followers (now 6,676), Basatneh acts, remotely, as a facilitator, disseminator and educator of the conflicts in Syria. She works with revolutionaries on the ground by translating and sharing their stories, editing and uploading their media footage, and connecting trusted groups to each other. In short, Basatneh curates something invaluable to combatting dictatorship: connection.
The power of removed actors like Basatneh is part of the film's thesis: “the worst thing is a small protest.” Small, fragmented groups of uprising easily make individuals targets, but “social media lets you start big.” It also pulls the curtain back on exactly how many people share the same beliefs, creating an information cascade.
Basatneh claims that, from her removed and resource-enabled view, she has an even more complete understanding of the revolution than those on the ground. She also has the ability to carry correspondence that is “too risky” for those on the inside to attempt. She shows the camera an extensive Excel spreadsheet of all the activists she’s talked to, people she wants to meet and celebrate with in Syria when the regime is toppled.
Among these friends are Fulbright scholar and Syracuse University student Bassel Shahade and dental student Aous al Mubarak, both of whom she frequently coordinates with. Also featured is Mazhar "Omar" Tayara from the city Homs, who she calls a “genius.” Fluent in French, English and Arabic, Tayara in the film is a highly-connected citizen journalist who takes photos and videos of the protests..
“The regime’s biggest fear is someone like Omar,” Basatneh says. Indeed, with such tight government restriction (and denial), the stories and footage of on-the-ground activists are the only viable source of information outflow from the nation. Later footage shows protestors chanting, “Take a picture in the open… take a picture for CNN… the Syrian media is corrupt.”
In the film, professors from institutions like Harvard and NYU discuss the power of the Internet as a tool for inciting dramatic change. The wildfire of social media, in conjunction with robust, organized protest, shut down other regimes prior to the conflicts in Syria. Tunisia fell in 28 days, Egypt in 18.
The Syrian regime, spearheaded by President and commander-in-chief Bashar al-Assad, was afforded the opportunity to study these phenomena and therefore more resiliency. The revolution in Syria thus remains entrenched for several months. As the revolution escalates violently, the effectiveness of Basatneh’s network appears to wean, highlighting the valuable but limited extent of social media-powered activism.
After the screening, which was hosted by the International Studies program, Syrian-American Weinberg senior Ameer Al-Khudari, who still has family in Homs, was invited to lead a discussion and answer audience questions. Topics included the emergence of Syria’s combined proxy and civil wars, the relative productivity of “Facebook activism” and nationalistic attitudes in Europe in the face of the refugee crisis.
“I think it’s important for everyone to see these personal experiences and these personal stories in order to be more informed about the crisis and know what these people are fleeing,” Weinberg freshman Carolina Laguna said. “I mean, this was three years ago; this film covered something that has escalated to a very different state now. So [it’s necessary to be] informed about the state of what they’re fleeing and why it’s so important for them to have a new place to be.”
Al-Khudari, also viewing the film for the first time, expressed concern over the focus on Basatneh – one girl who comprises one moving part in a much larger movement. He described the Syrian revolution as “a faceless revolution” driven by those “fighting for a common cause,” in which there’s no place for ego.
“That was really weird to me […] It’s not about individuals,” Al-Khudari said. He also recommended another film, available on Netflix, called "Return to Homs," which follows protest leaders as the anti-regime movement morphs into an armed revolution and later, widespread devastation.
Still, Al-Khudari recognizes the accessibility of a film about an American girl in her bedroom, for those in the beginning stages of learning. “I think this was a way for people to understand the bare-bone basics, of the authoritarian regime and the peaceful revolution, and that was really a moment in the conflict that was the moment, like the beautiful moment before things turned,” Al-Khudari said.